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C'mon barbie, let's go party
What's the secret to great barbecue? Marination, sauces and oodles of patience. TOI-Crest tells you how to become a guru of the grill.
A barbecue is the perfect celebration of winter. And not surprisingly, through December and January, when temperatures remain deliciously low, and the soft golden sunshine bathes you in comforting warmth, barbecue - a term originating in the Caribbeans - becomes a buzzword with grills being set up in gardens, patios and terrace tops. Using equipment ranging from top-of-the-line Weber grills to bucket chulas and outdoor brick fireplaces, people are dining alfresco on food that's coming straight off the fire.
My mum-in-law's annual barbecue lunch is a much-awaited event for family and friends. Traditionally, she hosts it in late December or early January when the garden is ablaze with winter annuals, the air scented by herbs and the first batch of Rocket has attained full peppery maturity.
The choice of meats varies every year - the final list a result of having to balance current food fads of various family members, dietary restrictions of invitees and of course, the size of the party. The array includes: thick slabs of Calcutta's best undercut beef steaks steeped a long while in a cocktail of Worcester sauce, crushed garlic and olive oil and grilled to tender juiciness;chicken drumsticks that have emerged from overnight immersion in orange juice, ground orange peel, freshly ground pepper and crushed sea salt to be cooked till their skin chars and crackles and the flesh underneath reaches just-done succulence;mutton kebabs threaded on skewers, the spices of their marinade adding middle-eastern fragrance to the smoke around the grill;chicken kebabs in creamy mint-flecked yoghurt dressing and cushioned, shashlik-style, between capsicum and tomato wedges;star-anise scented short ribs, sticky with soy and honey, the meat falling off the bone, the richness of the fat modulated by the burnt caramel that coats it;plump tiger prawn drenched in olive oil, crushed garlic and lemon juice, turning chameleon-like from zebra stripes to dark pink when seared by flames.
Some years ago, my mum-in-law carried out a major salvage operation on a discarded American barbecue grill which had been lying for years with household junk in a garage corner and this replaced the ancient (but highly serviceable) barbecue trays that she used previously. The restored one stands on long legs, has a deep round belly for the charcoal/wood chips, and a cover. It offers a large surface area, and the grill can be lowered allowing you to control the distance of meats from the coal and flames. When the party's a big one with a larger selection of meats, then the old trays are pressed back into service.
The barbecue is set up at the side of the garden, protected from wind and the coals lit at least an hour before cooking begins so that they are the right temperature when the meats are placed on the oiled grills. While the meat cooks - with frequent turnings and bastings - jugs of Bloody Mary keep salt-rimmed glasses replenished;and platters of short eats like orange-yolked duck eggs, boiled, halved and stir fried in soy-chilli-onion, and slivers of ceviche on buttered brown bread stave off hunger pangs. But gradually, as the air grows heavy with the smells of cooking meat, even Bloody Marys can't distract you from being ravenous and fortunately this is about the time when the meats are getting done and guests drift from the lawn to the cooking site to help themselves.
There's always a choice of sauces for the meats - each a tribute to my mum-in-law's creativeness. For instance, there's her version of the standard barbecue sauce founded on liquid gur (a winter special), onion, pureed tomatoes and orange juice;a heady citrus dressing based on homemade marmalade and white wine;or a rich garlicinfused doi-mayonnaise mix. Foil-wrapped buttery garlic bread, big bowls of gardenfresh rocket and tomato salad and potato salad round off the meal.
At a friend's terrace-top night-time barbecue done on two small round grills, the array of foods included cubes of white fish marinated in olive oil and lemon juice, and a host of veggies including eggplant, red and yellow peppers, mushrooms and potatoes. Very sensibly, one grill was for the meats and fish while the other was dedicated to the vegetarian items.
I realised that a barbecue can also be an ideal opening to a meal - especially if the idea of organising an entire lunch or dinner on grilled food is somewhat overwhelming. At a lunchtime birthday celebration a few days ago, our hosts had set up a barbecue in the corner of the garden that provided delicious skincrackling pork sausages and chicken drumsticks as finger food to accompany the margaritas and beer, before we moved on to a main course of pastas and salads.
So what are the watch points for a successful barbecue? Here's what I've learnt from the BBQ pros:
Marinate meats for at least 24 hours. Go with flavours you enjoy for marinades, but remember to include some oil for moistening and acid content for tenderising. In the case of mutton (chops or kebabs), green papaya in the marinade is essential for its tenderising powers. For both pork ribs and mutton chops a bit of pre-cooking (in the oven) is a good time saver - you can then just finish them off on the grill.
Marinate fish for just a couple of hours - otherwise there's the danger of the flesh disintegrating.
Have a couple of experienced persons dedicated to managing the grill from start to finish. If you don't have household help who can handle this, persuade friends or family. It's a big commitment since they have to be at the grill for most of the event. Asking guests to cook their own food is not a good idea - it requires technique and patience and chances are they'll end up with meat that is charred on the outside and raw inside. Rather, invite them to reheat their meats at the grill for a few minutes - this way they'll get a feel of barbecuing.
Keep in mind that different things cook at different temperatures. And anything with a bone (drumsticks, ribs if cooked from scratch) will take longer. A meat thermometer is a helpful gadget.
Have lots of skewers, tongs, basting brushes at hand;as well as heavy-duty oven gloves and several rolls of kitchen towels.
Safe and happy barbecuing!
My barbecue discovery this winter has been quails. These are perfect when you've got a small number of guests, both as starters or as part of an entire barbecued meal. Buy them dressed and spatchcocked (backbone removed) so that you can flatten them. The birds are tiny so estimate one bird per person. Marinade 24 hours in olive oil, orange juice, soy, chilli and plum conserve. Place on very hot grill, turning frequently and basting all the while with Pomace olive oil. Test for doneness by piercing with a knife and checking that the juices run clear. But don't overcook. Serve with a sauce made by mixing bottled sweet chilli sauce, sesame oil and a little white vinegar and soy.
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